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Iceland volcano ash cloud: At least Europe has a backup in trains, ferries, buses

The Iceland volcano underscores the need for the US to invest more heavily in surface transportation -- and move quickly to reauthorize the six-year transportation law.

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The cost to the airline industry of the Iceland volcano has now surpassed that of 9/11, according to the group that represents the world’s air carriers.

But unlike in the United States, air passengers stranded in Europe have more transportation options with highly interconnected and efficient trains, buses, and ferries.

Bumped flyers may be forced to travel cheek by jowl as they flock to alternatives, but the point is, they at least have a sophisticated transport backup to turn to. And its importance grows with each day that ash spews from Iceland’s volcano.

Over the decades, the Europeans have worked steadily at building this extensive and generally reliable surface network – not without grumbling. Back in 1987, when construction began on the English Channel rail tunnel, the British were still debating its merits. Cost overruns in the ensuing years did not help the tunnel’s cause. But the island inhabitants are surely thankful for it now, as the French railway SNCF says it will offer reduced fares and 80,000 extra seats between Paris and London this week.

All across Europe, ferries, trains, and buses are adding capacity to make up for the sudden lack of air travel – the largest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. The war comparison is an apt one, because it underscores the importance of transport as a national security issue. Indeed, the British Royal Navy is being dispatched to pick up stranded passengers from continental shores.

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